Farmers plagued with fusarium head blight are likely to see deeper discounts in the wake of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly, the board’s agronomist Mike Grenier says.
“I think you’ll see deep discounts pretty quickly on an individual year,” Grenier said during the recent 7th Canadian Workshop on Fusarium Head Blight.
“I guess you just have to look south of the border with acreage down there and how it has been pushed out of the fusarium-infected area.”
In Minnesota and North Dakota, farmers have switched to more corn and soybean production, partly because fusarium-infected wheat returns less, Grenier said in response to a question from Dale Hicks, an Outlook, Sask. farmer and director with Winter Cereals Canada. Hicks noted the wheat board blends fusarium-infected wheat with sound wheat to reduce the impact on farmers.
“This (open market) is really going to change things for us,” Hicks said. “I fear the onus is going to fall right back on us (farmers).”
While the wheat board passes the benefits of blending back to farmers, in an open market each farmer will deal with a grain company, Grenier said in an interview. If the fusarium discounts are severe enough, farmers will be forced to either haul their wheat farther to another elevator offering a blending benefit or find another market such as feed or ethanol, he said.
Although some farmers, especially in Manitoba’s Red River Valley, have been switching to other crops such as corn and soybeans, planting a cereal crop in the rotation is almost unavoidable, Grenier said.
Tackling head blight with tolerant varieties is key, he said, adding farmers need to be encouraged to grow the most tolerant varieties available. Grenier also questioned the wisdom of registering new vulnerable varieties to be grown outside the head blight area when the disease is spreading farther west.
Canada’s shrunken grain-handling system is already challenged by fusarium head blight, a fungal disease that reduces wheat yields and quality. It also sometimes produces the mycotoxin deoxynivalenol (DON), which when consumed above certain levels, is harmful to livestock and humans.
Part of the problem is knowing how much DON is in a shipment of wheat. Right now the number of fusarium-damaged kernels is used to estimate the potential DON level in infected wheat. There used to be a close relationship between damaged kernels and DON, but in the last few years the amount of DON has increased relative to the damage, Grenier said. Researchers aren’t sure why.
As a result the wheat board is gathering more wheat samples directly from farmers in the fall and testing it for DON, he said. When DON levels are high, the CWB segregates the infected wheat and offers farmers special programs blending infected wheat with sound wheat to offset the damage.
Private grain handlers are also testing wheat for DON to meet the wheat board’s sales requirements, said Joe Girdner, James Richardson International’s vice-president of wheat marketing.
Elevator companies have 16 to 24 hours to load a 100-car train, which effectively means there is less than 10 minutes to load each car.
“You don’t really have time to stop and check what you’ve got,” Girdner said. “You’ve got to know what you’ve got before you put it into the car.”
The fact that Canada has one of the smallest commercial handling systems among the world’s wheat exporters adds to the complexity, he said.
In 1980, there were 3,000 elevators across the West, but there are now fewer than 500, and storage capacity has dropped to six million tonnes, compared to nine million previously. Meanwhile, annual crop production now averages around 50 million tonnes (up from 40 million 20 years ago) largely because of higher canola yields and less summerfallow.
Removing damaged kernels
Regular grain cleaners are not very good at removing fusarium-damaged kernels, Girdner said. Richardson sometimes uses gravity tables, which are effective, but slow as they can process only 15 to 20 tonnes of wheat an hour. “The problem is what do you do with the stuff that you’ve cleaned out? About the only place you can take it is to the dump,” he said.
Fusarium head blight isn’t just an issue with wheat, it’s also a problem in six-row malting barley, said Pat Rowan, a buyer with Busch Agriculture Resources Canada, owned by InBev Inc., the world’s largest brewer.
“It has changed how we do business in the last 10 years,” he said.
The company samples and tests barley for DON and has learned DON levels can be reduced by storing barley, but only when the toxin is on the surface of the kernel, said Rowan. As a result, some barley is stored for up to nine months, he said.
Washing and steeping can reduce DON levels as well. Infected barley also has to be segregated. All those measure add cost to the process, Rowan said. Meanwhile, North American farmers are planting less malting barley. “Malt barley has become a specialty crop and as such, we have to work that much harder to get the farmer to grow it,” he said.
“Right now the U.S. has four million acres — the lowest it has ever been. You have to contract every bushel. “In Canada we’re contracting more and more. It hasn’t got to the point yet where we’re concerned about the acreage.”